Review: Apple Inc. Apple TV (Third-Generation/1080p)
Pros: A modestly updated version of the award-winning second-generation Apple TV, now featuring 1080p video support and a new Apple A5 processor inside the 2010 model’s black plastic enclosure. Runs the latest, improved 5.0 version of Apple TV software, offering excellent video streaming and AirPlay mirroring options. Continues to include Apple’s aluminum Remote control, and support for iOS Wi-Fi Remote software. Previous versions received considerable post-release software updates to improve features.
Cons: The new model’s signature feature—1080p support—is not properly implemented on the iTunes Store side, obscuring 1080p options from customers, and offering relatively few movies to even U.S. customers; international 1080p options are considerably more limited. No communicated upcoming support for 1080p screen mirroring from iOS devices, though 1080p streaming is otherwise supported. Despite software-side improvements, remote control options and menus remain in need of additional fine-tuning and design enhancements.
Apple’s third-generation Apple TV ($99) is the least hyped member of an increasingly important family of products—one that was damaged by a large but inauspicious launch in 2007, later benefitting from iterative improvements scattered across numerous software updates. Though the first-generation Apple TV remained on store shelves for roughly three years, longer than any iPod or iPhone save the ignored iPod classic, its longevity was less a statement of its popularity than its “hobby” status within a surging company. While Apple focused on improving the iPhone and creating the iPad, it left the Apple TV hardware virtually untouched, debuting its fourth major design of Apple TV software alongside an entirely redesigned $99 second-generation Apple TV in late 2010. A year and a half later, Apple updated the second-generation model’s software to 5.0, and released a barely updated third-generation device—one that’s nearly indistinguishable from its predecessor.
The new Apple TV retains the same price, runs the same build of the same version 5.0 software, and for the time being offers literally nothing in the way of surprises: even by Apple’s iterative standards, the third-generation Apple TV looks and feels like a very modest upgrade. From the outside, the new model is nearly identical to its predecessor, made from the same combination of black plastic and rubber, tethered to a wall power outlet with the same included black cable, and bearing the same aluminum six-button remote control Apple released in late 2009. Inside, the third-generation model has received deliberately limited tweaks: a different processor, partial support for 1080p video streaming, and… well, that’s it. If you already have a second-generation Apple TV, everything else is the same.
Since we’ve already covered the Apple TV’s 5.0 software extensively, and so little has changed with the third-generation model’s hardware, this review is effectively an update to our comprehensive review of the second-generation model. But that’s not to say that the third-generation model is a complete snooze. As we said when selecting our Best Accessory of 2011 Award, the software-updated Apple TV was last year’s single most important iPod, iPhone, and iPad accessory, so while this year’s updates seem comparatively trivial right now, post-release tweaks could make a big difference in its future appeal. The only people who will be dissatisfied with the new model are those who expected Apple to do more with the hardware, and even then, there’s plenty of room for optimism: hiccups aside, Apple TVs do tend to get better over time.